Por Fin Viene: Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas in L.A.

I visited Cuba in December 2011 to attend a major international jazz festival. It was a great chance to view the Havana beaches and cityscape, including the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (pictured above right). Photos by Jordan Peimer.

When I think of Cuban music, I think of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Its grand ballroom has hosted all the greats—from Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas, founded by renowned bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez (1911–1970), to, more recently, members of the Buena Vista Social Club. In the 1940s and 1950s, the hotel was the center of Havana’s rhythmic culture, a place of glamour where residents and vacationers alike could rub elbows with celebrities, gangsters, and politicians and dance the son. [Incidentally, a large influx of American Jews traveled to Cuba specifically to explore the Latin sounds that had provided the soundtrack to the Borscht Belt’s nightly dance parties. There, in the Catskill Mountains, Latin music had been entertaining Jewish audiences for decades.]

You’ll definitely get on your feet and dance when you hear Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas this week at Sunset Concerts. Here’s a clip of the band performing at Lincoln Center in New York this year.

This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas perform in the ensemble’s Los Angeles debut, bringing more than seven decades of history as icons of Cuban son. In recognition of how much Angelenos love Latin dancing, the Skirball will be removing many rows of seats and installing a dance floor for the show. We invite you to bring your dancing shoes and dance the night away—just like you would have in 1940s Cuba at the Hotel Nacional! Continue reading

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House Party with Noura

Noura and me at the party in Timbuktu.

Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.

Umm Kulthum performing “Baeed Anak” in Paris, November 1967.

I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading

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Your Recipe for a Romantic Vegan Date at the Skirball

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad, a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad,
a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

It’s summer, and that means concert season has begun! Now that it’s officially July, you can start counting down the days to this summer’s Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. It all starts on July 24 with a performance by Noura Mint Seymali and continues every Thursday night through August 28.

Sunset Concerts are fun, festive events to share with friends and family. Each concert offers you a night filled with music and dancing, and the concerts are all FREE! Every concert showcases a different style of music, so make sure to check out the Skirball website for a complete line-up. The concerts begin at 8:00 p.m., but try to arrive early because the seating is first-come, first-served!

In my opinion, Sunset Concerts are especially perfect for a romantic date night. If you are looking to impress that special someone, I’ve outlined the recipe for a romantic summertime evening below:

  • I would suggest planning ahead and packing a picnic. Who doesn’t love to be courted with a home-cooked meal? If your date has any special dietary needs, check out my recipe for a vegan Greek salad. As with any great recipe, there’s room for modifications; for instance, you can add feta cheese if you prefer to make a nonvegan version. Along with the salad, pack a baguette or crackers, your favorite hummus, and grapes or strawberries to nibble on. (If packing a picnic isn’t your style, you can purchase a complete meal on site at Zeidler’s expanded grab-and-go cart, featuring gourmet sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, and assorted other goodies.) Continue reading
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President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2014

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Music moves us like few other forms of human expression. It speaks a universal language. Gladness, sorrow, yearning, hope, love—each of us feels these emotions as unique, yet music has a way of connecting them, and us, in all our shared humanity.

Music, like every language, is more than sound. It comes from somewhere—not only from a voice or an instrument, but from a composer, a performer, and a context. The Skirball Cultural Center is all about context—the communities we inhabit, the cultures we celebrate, the memories we cherish. When concerts are performed at the Skirball, they are appreciated not only as music but as vessels of community, culture, and memory. They enrich our knowledge of the world and of each other, even as they unite our hearts in song and dance.

This summer, Continue reading

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Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.

 

Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. Continue reading

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Water World

Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

When the rain is coming down during winter in L.A. (like it is today, finally!), the Skirball takes on my favorite look: wet. Much has been made of Moshe Safdie’s signature materials—glass, steel, and water—and how they reflect the sun, sky, and mountains. [To learn more about Safdie’s design aesthetic, visit Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie.] Those of us who live/work in one of his environments know the special secrets of how the concrete walls look wet, the patterns of raindrops on the pond, the sound of a storm against the glass, and the occasional leaf floating in a puddle.

It is with these moments in mind that I decided to create a spotify playlist—a soundtrack, if you will, for those stormy days, when the archaeology dig is closed and the buildings’ exteriors take on a mellowed hue. I invite you to pick up an umbrella and admire the Skirball in the rain with your headphones tuned to this playlist.

The Taper Courtyard.

The Taper Courtyard.

“Hljómalind” by Sigur Rós from Hvarf/Heim
The organ at the beginning always reminds me of a church organ, but the song is anything but a hymn. It’s written in Hopelandic, the imaginary Icelandic-like language the band has invented to focus their listeners on sounds rather than words, I frequently think that Jónsi is singing “you saw the light” and “you shine on us.” At the same time, for me the nonsense syllables call to mind the interplay of wet flagstone and sky in the Taper Courtyard. The final moments of the song remind me of a toy piano. Follow along with the Hopelandic lyrics, here.

“Eple” by Röyksopp from Melody A.M. (but I most prefer the Black Strobe remix off their Eple 12″ EP)
In Beaux Art architecture, in order to create a successful fountain, one needed to ensure that anyone strolling by would hear the sound of water on water, water on stone, and water on metal. Certainly on a rainy day one can hear that all of that at the Skirball. “Eple” seems to reflect the romance of falling water in at least all three of those states, plus the drama of grey skies. I think here at the base of the mountains and Mulholland Drive we benefit from a very special climate. If you’ve ever watched the clouds roll into the mountains here and become fog, you know what I am talking about. See the Röyksopp music video, here.

“Tinseltown in the Rain” by The Blue Nile
The classic but defunct indie band The Blue Nile knew a thing or two about rain: their home base was Glasgow, Scotland, a city that receives nearly fifty inches annually. While their song is not about Los Angeles but the impermanence of love, I love comparing the idea of the wet Victorian buildings (ubiquitous in Glasgow) to the Skirball’s rain-streaked modern architecture. Plus the song showcases Paul Buchanan’s plaintive voice to brilliant effect. I often sing the song to myself while I walk out the Skirball’s front door towards a rainy Sepulveda Blvd. The repetition of lyrics is a nice accompaniment to watching windshield wipers of cars stopped at the traffic light. Watch it performed live, hereContinue reading

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Rockin’ Out with Kids

Seeing a child arrive at the Skirball for his or her first rock concert is a perk of my job; knowing they’re getting that jittery feeling you get when you’re about to be in the presence of those voices you’ve spent hours with, at home or in the car, memorizing every word and drumbeat.

In my experience, the people in these amazing bands are always just as excited as the kids to rock out together in person. In just a few weeks, our special Winter Family Concerts bring two creative, kid-friendly acts to the Skirball: two-time Parent’s Choice Award winner Jambo on Saturday, December 28, and 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Children’s Album The Pop Ups on Sunday, December 29. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about these groups as they prepare for their upcoming performances, and they were kind enough to oblige.


Jambo 1
JAMBO

The mission of musical group Jambo has always been to get people of all ages up and dancing. For years, husband-and-wife team Steve Pierson and Melinda Leigh have been using their imaginative performance style to transport audiences through the roots of American music. They’ve made several appearances at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series, and they’ve always been a big hit. I spoke with Steve Pierson about Jambo’s beginnings and what inspires him to keep performing.

How did you get started in performance?
I always played music and performed as a kid. I studied piano when I was young, but when my older brother taught me some chords on the guitar, I never looked back. I started out playing acoustic guitar in coffee houses and small venues; playing James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, as well as my original songs. I was always heavily into blues music and played in a few different local blues bands till I put together my own band, Steve Pierson & Blues Head, and started touring around the country playing large blues festivals and small roadhouse bars.

What is one memorable moment from your performing career that stands out?
There have been a few shows that have really stuck with me over my career as a performer, but as it relates to Jambo, one of my first shows was very memorable. I wrote these songs for my own daughter and had no intention of performing them outside of our own home. We played a show at a local elementary school and the experience blew me away. The kids had such unbridled enthusiasm for the music and everyone was having so much fun. The kids were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage! jambo2I had a blast and it clicked for me that I could play the music I love for these families and it didn’t have to be “dumbed down.” It became my mission to present young kids with really great musical experiences.

What music inspires you?
Dan Zanes was the first person I heard playing “real” music for kids, and I also really loved the Jack Johnson Curious George record. These were songs for kids that adults really liked listening to as well, and that’s what I wanted to make. After that, my music borrows from my musical heroes: The Band, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, anything Stax or Muscle Shoals, and of course the blues greats including, but not limited to, the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Taj Mahal, Albert Collins … the list goes on.

How did you come up with your group’s name?
I was trying to come up with something that would sound fun, groovy, and inviting. “Jambo” is a combination of “jam,” as in a jam session or party, and “gumbo,” a delicious Louisiana dish that is a combination of rich flavors and ingredients. I felt like the name was kind of like a “roots music stew” where I could stir in influences from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Jambo also means “hello” in Swahili, which I love because it is so welcoming and evocative of the cultural diversity that I try to bring to the music.

What influence has your family had on your art?
My family has been a huge influence on my art. I never would have written these songs for children if it hadn’t been for the inspiration my own daughter brings me. I have always tried to write from her perspective and about things that she likes or issues she has struggled with. I wanted these songs to be helpful to her as she is growing up, and it has been a blessing to be able to pass that along to all the kids and families that hear my music. It’s been so great to be able to share this project and perform with my wife as well, making it a true family affair! It’s our mission now to bring “real roots music” to kids and do a little part to fill the void left by diminished school budgets and dwindling music programs.

 

dsc_0098THE POP UPS

The Pop Ups are not your typical children’s band. The duo’s incorporation of puppets, props, and colorful sets into their show has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. We’re excited for The Pop Ups to bring their high energy and wildly inventive tunes to the Skirball. I spoke with Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein about their influences and what we should expect from their upcoming performance.

How did you get started in performance?
We both started very young. Jacob’s father had a kids band called Dino Rock, Continue reading

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Dancing with the Skirball

This Friday, December 6, Brooklyn-based indie rock band/dance troupe People Get Ready will perform at Into the Night: Progression, a late-night party taking place at the Skirball.

People Get Ready fuse music and modern dance in a combination that’s as arresting as it is unexpected. After attending one of their shows, Bob Boilen, host and creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” dubbed it his favorite show of 2012: “No single show took my breath away the way this one did—part rock concert, part performance art, part dance, all perfectly melded together. … It felt like a band creating a music video for every piece of music performed.” Below, check out a live video of People Get Ready’s performance for the song “Middle Name,” followed by a collection of six music videos in which unexpected dancing is the name of the game—including a few videos featuring artists with ties to People Get Ready.

 

1- In this music video for Blonde Redhead’s “Top Ranking,” artist and filmmaker Miranda July contorts her body in a series of one-second-long poses. [Interesting connection: People Get Ready’s Steven Reker served as choreographer for July’s 2011 film, The Future.]

 

2- Bay Area–based art-rock band Deerhoof enlisted People Get Ready members Steven Reker, Jen Goma, and James Rickman to dance in their video for “Fête d’Adieu.” Check out Reker’s solo around 1:36.

 

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My Summertime Jams

BelleBrigadeTN038Summer is coming to an end, and with it some of my favorite things about being in Los Angeles at this time of year, like the outdoor summer concerts that take advantage of the clear, crisp nights of the city. The best part about a majority of these concerts is that they are inexpensive and often free! What most attracts me to these summertime music events is reaffirmed each time I attend one: that music has the profound ability to bring people from all different backgrounds and ages together. It builds a sense of community, which is no easy task in a city as extensive as Los Angeles. Music reminds us to celebrate our lives, the people around us, and the beautiful city we are given the opportunity to live in. While there are many free summer offerings all over Los Angeles, each one offers a unique type of experience from the other.

Last year, as part of my Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship at the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, I was able to watch a Grand Performances: Lunch Box Noon Concert featuring the pop-folk band The Belle Brigade. The downtown Los Angeles atmosphere, with its tall, gleaming buildings that enclosed the outdoor concert, provided a feeling of togetherness and acted as an oasis to the chaotic and constant flux of its metropolitan surroundings. Set up next to an outdoor fountain, the small amphitheater allowed audience members to congregate in a more intimate space, where children, teens, and adults alike could sing along and dance all while enjoying their lunch boxes, which were handed out to audience members prior to the show. Set appropriately at noon, the performance took advantage of the perpetual sunshine this city is known for.

BelleBrigade_Sunset Concerts_SkirballIt was awesome to see my summer music experience come full-circle, when, while working as the Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern at the Skirball this summer, The Belle Brigade kicked off their Sunset Concerts series on July 25. As this was my first Sunset Concerts experience, I really did not know what to expect from this outdoor, all-ages music event. Unsurprisingly, in a similar way to their performance at last year’s Grand Performances concert, The Belle Brigade was able to make audience members dance and smile with their infectious melodies and catchy lyrics. The warm, starry night enveloped the attendees, providing a comforting and carefree vibe. The Taper courtyard filled with people of all backgrounds and ages: a family with four kids, racing each other from the parking lot to the venue; a young couple with their own picnic; and even local band Harriet, Continue reading

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Sunset Concerts at the Skirball Week 6: Dendê & Band

Dende2The Skirball’s Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music—finish up this week with Dendê & Band, rhythm-heavy Afro-Brazilian music led by master percussionist and composer Dendê Macêdo. Throughout the season, SkirBlog has featured a preview of the week’s upcoming performer written by a member of our Programs department. Read about this year’s final performance below, then make your way here on Thursday to watch the show in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. Dendê & Band, this Thursday, August 29, at 8:00 p.m.

When I walked into New York’s famed S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) and first saw Dendê & Band, I immediately knew that the mixture of African percussion and Brazilian melodies would make for a perfect addition to Sunset Concerts. Bahia-born bandleader Dendê currently splits his time between the Brazilian state and New York City, and along the way he has collaborated with some of the world’s great musicians, including David Byrne, Zakir Hussain, and Vinicius Cantuária. He has been performing since he was a young teenager, and while he leads a number of combos with slightly different focuses, all his music is about percussion and has been a hit from the Kennedy Center to Lincoln Center and at festivals around the world.

As a bandleader, Dendê exudes the charisma to create deep audience connections and his music easily cajoles even the most reticent onto the dance floor. The sound is a wonderful mixture of traditional Brazilian melodies and Afrobeat with added flavors of reggae, merengue, and other tropical sounds that will sweep you onto your feet. Time Out New York says the music “ought to delight fans of Afrobeat and psych-tinged funk.” Rest assured, when Dendê & Band start playing, you will be out of your seat and on the dance floor.

Watch the official video for “Cafézinho” by Dendê & Band:

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